that is how moved I am right now. I have just finished reading a column that is affirming of life, insistent on moral clarity, and totally appropriate to the incident which occasions its writing, the arrest of Radovan Karadzic. It is by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, and is entitled Karadzic and War’s Lessons.
Perhaps it will not move you as it did me. But you should read it. It should not be excerpted, which is all I can do without violating copyright. So I am going to ask a favor. Please read the column. If you do nothing else this morning, I think you will find my request reasonable. After you've done that, if you want, we can talk further. And anything I have to add will be below the fold. But don't feel obligated to do anything - except read Cohen's column
Reading Cohen brought back many memories for me of a time I was ashamed - ashamed of my country, of the supposedly civilized nations of Western Europe. I was outraged. Perhaps it was because of my own Jewish background, because of the distant relatives from Bialystok I never knew because of their deaths in the 1940s at the hands of the Nazis. Maybe it was because it had ingrained in my consciousness the idea of "Never Again" - that never again would the world sit silently on the sidelines as mass slaughter, genocidal actions were ongoing.
And I was ashamed of myself. Because I felt outrage over this, and realized that this was of course not the first such outrageous action since 1945. Yes, I had complained at our inaction in the depopulation of cities and killing by the Khmer Rouge, but I had not reacted with outrage. I had remained far too silent at ethnic slaughter south of the Saraha. I had not spoken up forcefully enough at violence that was not genocidal, but which was ethnically based, the first steps towards genocide, whether between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster, or Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, or Arab (both Muslim and Christian) and Jew at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean.
United Nations peacekeepers were unarmed, and sometimes used as hostages. I questioned of what use they were, when people were killed before them in Goradzde and Srebrenica, when Dutch peacekeepers gave backslaps to Serbians who were committing crimes against humanity. I wept when the iconic bridge in Mostar was destroyed, remembering how important physical objects can be as symbols, and how their destruction can indicate a willingness to eradicate any memory of those who are targeted.
And Sarajevo. A city famous for its mixed culture. A city that had welcomed Sephardic Jews for half a millenium. A city many had come to love and appreciate during the Winter Games of an Olympiad only a few decades past. And now? A symbol for ethnic slaughter, for deliberate targeting of civilians, for wanton destruction and killing merely because people could.
It is not as if we did not see it coming. We heard the words of Milosevich in June of 1989 on the anniversary of Kosovo and ignored them as we had ignored the words of Hitler in Mein Kampf. Perhaps the cost in death and destruction would be less, and after all, the Balkans (except for Greece) have never held the same level of interest and concern for most Europeans and North Americans as did the heart of Europe - France, and Germany, and Italy, for example, or the bombing of "our" ancestral home of England. We did not intervene when the first conflicts occurred, when the Croats blocked the Yugoslavian Army in barracks in their territory, and when they chose as a national symbol the flag that had been used by the hated Ustashe Nazi puppet regime, a flag that brought back nightmares for many of Serbian background. Oh yes, perhaps the Slovenians were able to get away without too much violence - their territory is mountainous, which limited the use of Serbian armor, and besides, they had at least implicit support from the Germans and Hungarians. Of greater importance, there were few of Serbian or Croatian background mixed in.
It is almost too painful to remember that before the violence reached massive proportions, we had indications, the first steps before massive escalation. The national military forces, largely Serb, decided to blockaded Dubrovnic and Split, at times shelling the former, cutting off electricity and water. This was a world heritage site, so designated by the United Nations. And one had to wonder if the later violence could have been avoided had the rest of the world intervened then, or at some other point early in the conflict.
In 1991 I was not yet a Quaker. In my own religious peregrinations I had recently left the Orthodox Church and returned, for what would be a period of a decade, to Judaism. From my time in the Eastern Church I understood the long-simmering religious conflict between Eastern and Western churches: Catholic Croats versus Orthodox Serbs. I knew that Russians would tilt heavily towards their religious cousins the Serbs. And the countries whose religion was Orthodox had for the large part had histories of domination by Islam - even Russia under the Mongols, although for several hundred years they had been the one free Orthodox nation able to intervene for their religious kin. I was inclined towards early intervention because of what I knew, because of what I could see from otherwise rational Americans of Serbian descent, the antipathy, even anger, that arose as events reminded them of centuries of Serbs being oppressed, their culture circumscribed. After all, Kosovo marked the site of the defeat of the Serbs: their national identity shaped by a massive loss, including of their leader Prince Lazar. Consider it Pearl Harbor and more, because it had not led to an overwhelming victory, but instead represented a shameful demarcation, one which needed to be overturned, once and for all. Bosnia was but the first step, and Kosovo was sure to follow.
Reading Cohen today brought all of this back to me. His column was more powerful than I might have expected from its title, because he did not write from the perspective of the kind of broad strokes I have just described. Cohen focuses on individuals. And such narrative strikes us with far more impact. Stalin opined that the death of one person is a tragedy but the death of a million is merely a statistic. Perhaps I prefer the phrasings of poets to those of national leaders, so let me instead reflect on Blake. At the beginning of "Augeries of Innocence" he wrote:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Or if you saw "Schindler's List" you will remember the scene where Oskar is given a ring, on which are engraved words in theory taken from the Talmud,
He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.
Judaism saw mankind as descended from a common source - the myth of Adam in part reminds us of our common connection. The Orthodox Christianity of which Serbia had been a part for well more than a millenium teaches that as in one man, Adam, the world fell, so in one man, Jesus, the world was restored. And John Donne, in his magnificent Meditation 17 on the interconnectedness of all in the Church Universal. We all know the final lines which Hemingway took for a book title, but consider these earlier words:
The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she
does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action
concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated;
Let me return to Cohen, to the memories he has chosen to share in his column. Let me simply list some of the lessons he offers, without he indivisibility of integrity and the importance of the specific examples which by now you have read:
the stubbornness of love
the fierceness of moral clarity
the quietness of courage
the indivisibility of integrity and the importance of a single dissenting voice
Lesson learned are useful only if we remember them. Sometimes we need a single voice, a single action, to invoke them once again.
Cohen begins by writing how he tried to get on with his life after the experience, the horror, of war and destruction. he ends while reminding us about the onward rush of life. He offers a single sentence. It is one that is so applicable, in so many aspects of our own existence:
The precious is no less important for being unbearable.
Unbearable. That cannot be an excuse for turning away. LOVE, MORAL CLARITY, COURAGE, INTEGRITY, A SINGLE DISSENTING VOICE.
And one more time: The precious is no less important for being unbearable.